Diadems in the Rough

by Stephen Houston

The ritual role of paper is by now a commonplace in studies of Classic Maya royalty. Kings show their station by wearing headbands, presumably made from the cortex of the strangler fig or amate (Ficus sp.), kopo’ in some Mayan languages.(Note 1)

Much could be written about Classic paper. There is the matter of its manufacture with “bark beaters.” Lashed to wooden handles, these grooved tools helped to mash and fuse fibers for eventual smoothing, sizing with lime-powder, and painting.(Note 2) Epigraphers might pay more attention to the reading of “paper” in Maya texts: hu’n, a term cueing “book,” “headband,” even “diadem” or “crown.” (Note 3) (The material came first, other meanings later.) Yet not all head coverings were Ficus. Some years ago, Michael Coe noted the probable use of henequen fibers in some headdresses (Coe 1973:49). An uncomfortable material, perhaps, but it was also durable, shapable, dramatic in effect, light to wear.

Two glyphic spellings indicate a third material for headgear. A paper, hu’n, it nonetheless seems to consist of something other than Ficus. One example occurs on Aguateca Stela 1, dating to AD 741 (Fig. 1; Graham 1967:fig. 3). The text offers an

Fig. 1. Figure 1. Aguateca Stela 1:A7, with close-up of royal headband (Graham 1967:figs. 2, 3).

unusual lead-up to the accession of a ruler, K’awiil Chan K’inich of Aguateca and Dos Pilas, by referring to an act of ka-cha-ji u-sa-ya-HU’N. The root is doubtless related to “tying,” kach, an event entirely appropriate for a headband (Grube 1992:213). In this spelling, the hu’n itself is visible as a paper bow. The reference comes 22 days prior to enthronement and may represent the pre-accession tying of a headband or the preparation of regalia for the ceremony. Another spelling is on the famed “Princeton Vase” at the Princeton Art Museum (Fig. 2; K511; Coe 1978:pl. 1). An ‘a-sa-ya HU’N-na is clearly visible at positions L2-K3, although the context is opaque. The caption, alluding to a person—note the agentive ‘a (or is it a pronoun, “your”?)—may refer to the scene of God L and his harem.

Figure 2. Princeton Vase, close up of caption (Coe 1978:pl. 1, photograph copyright Justin Kerr).

What can be made of these references to hu’n, once in secure connection to regalia and accession to high office?

An ethnography of the Q’eqchi’ Maya draws attention to a sedge, a grass or rush-like plant known as say (Cyperus sp.; Wilson 1972: 148, 169, 260, Table 19): “Today the principal fiber plant apart from ik’e (maguey) is a sedge, saySay is used by plaiting rather than spinning; the three faces of the stem are split apart and woven into fine mats (sayil pōp) on which to sit or sleep.” Use of say appears to have been gendered among the Q’eqchi’, as it was worked only by women. Say produces a finer product than other plaited or twilled materials, and the Ch’orti’, too, made full use of it (Wisdom 1940:153-154; yet note Ch’orti’ pohp’ for “sedge”). Ground up and mixed with oil for poultice, the sedge was employed by Ch’orti’ midwives, at least until the 1930s, to heal the umbilical wounds of babies (Wisdom 1940:288): soothing, applicable at a key moment in life’s passage. Colonial Yukatek refers to the same material, as in the Calepino Motul: “Çay [say] el coraçón o junco de que hazen petates o esteras” or “the heart or rush from which petates or mats are made” (Cuidad Real 2001:136).

There is another possibility too. Colonial and recent Tzotzil mention a tree called saya-vun [hun], “saya-paper,” a wild mulberry (Morus celtidfolia; Breedlove and Laughlin 2000: 142, 153). A plant from a related plant, like Ficus and the mulberry in the Moraceae family, was commonly used in Polynesia for tapa cloth and throughout Asia as the basis of a resilient and valued paper (Seelenfreund et al. 2010). What is striking in the image on Aguateca Stela 1 is that a lashing around the forehead is cross-hatched. This is either because it is dark—a common Maya convention—or because it renders a rougher, more textured material (Fig. 1).

The Classic Maya wove, plaited, twilled, and otherwise joined materials from the vegetal world around them. Two glyphic examples suggest that some such works were labeled as “paper” yet from fibers that were coarser and tougher than Ficus. Truly: diadems in the rough. A second option is that, as in Asia and Polynesia, where the tradition had great antiquity, the Maya transformed mulberry into a high-quality paper for ritual use.


Note 1. A useful paper by Erik Boot highlights a pot with a text reading, in part, u-ko-po-lo che-‘e-bu (Boot 1997: 64-67, fig. 4, photographed by Justin Kerr as K7786). Boot proposes u-po-ko-lo, from a root meaning “wash,” for the first glyph block. I might suggest a different order, with signs that sequence from upper left to lower left, then pass from upper right to lower right. The relevance here is that kopol could be an adjectival reference to amate, kopol, in connection to che’b, “quill, brush.” Thus, “fig-tree-quill.” Whatever the interpretation, the presence of the term in a name-tag remains enigmatic—at least we know that the owner of this bowl served a higher-ranking ajaw. In my view, a second example noted by Boot, MT347, from Burial 160 at Tikal, possibly with po-ko-lo, is fragmentary and the context uncertain. I am unsure how it relates to the spelling on K7786.

Note 2. For controversy about such objects, there is no beating Paul Tolstoy on barkbeaters, which he understood in pan-diffusionist terms (Tolstoy 1963, 1981). The first discussion of such objects appears in Uhle (1889-90), likening New World examples to comparable pieces from Sulawesi.

Note 3. Excellent discussion of the phonology and glyphic spellings appears in Grube (2004: 65-66, 73). In 1986, Don Federico Fahsen showed me two texts in Guatemala, both from the early years of the Late Classic period, both painted in similar style if not by the same hand. I immediately noticed a sign alternation of the sort that is so productive in decipherment. The number “one” alternated in crisp pattern with a sign combination that, in Glyph F of the inscriptions, represented a Maya book (this last identification was made with great style and insight by Michael Coe [1977]). The unavoidable conclusion, for those ceramics, at the time of their painting: the word for “one,” jun, was a near-homophone of the term for “book,” hu’n. The phonological details of the words were less clear in the 1980s. Now, I would read “one” as juun, “book” or “paper” as hu’n, following the evidence and reasoning in Robertson et al. (2007:7, 48). The scribe or atelier producing these ceramics would have been unusually expansive in their embrace of homophony.

Sources Cited

Boot, Erik. 1997. Classic Maya Vessel Classification: Rare Vessel Type Collocations Containing the Noun Cheb “Quill.” Estudios de historia social y económica de America, vol. 15, pp. 59-76. http://dspace.uah.es/jspui/bitstream/10017/5995/1/Classic%20Maya%20Vessel%20Classification.%20Rare%20Vessel%20Type%20Collocations%20Containing%20the%20Noun%20Cheb%20’Quill’.pdf

Breedlove, Dennis E., and Robert M. Laughlin. 2000. The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán. Abridged edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001. Calepino Maya de Motul, edición crítica y anotada por Réne Acuña. Plaza y Valdés Editores, México, DF.

Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya Scribe and His World. Grolier Club, New York.

___________. 1977. Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists. In Social Process in Maya Prehistory: Studies in Honour of Sir Eric Thompson, ed. by N. Hammond, pp. 327-347. Academic Press, London.

___________. 1978. Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.

Graham, Ian. 1967. Archaeological Explorations in El Peten, Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 62. http://www.utmesoamerica.org/pdf_meso/RRAMW62.pdf.

Grube, Nikolai. 1992. Classic Maya Dance: Evidence from Hieroglyphs and Iconography. Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 3, pp. 201-218. 2004. The Orthographic Distinction between Velar and Glottal Spirants in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, The Linguistics of Maya Writing, ed. by Søren Wichmann, pp. 61-81. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Tolstoy, Paul. 1963. Cultural Parallels between Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica in the Manufacture of Bark-cloth. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 25, pp. 646–662.

__________. 1991. Paper route: Were the Man the Manufacture and Use of Bark Paper Introduced into Mesoamerica from Asia? Natural History, vol. 100, no. 6, pp. 6-8, 10, 12-14.

Seelenfreund, D., A. C. Clarke, N. Oyanedel, R. Piña, S. Lobos, E.A. Matisoo-Smith, and A. Seelenfreund. 2010. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) as a Commensal Model for Human Mobility in Oceania: Anthropological, Botanical, and Genetic considerations. New Zealand Journal of Botany, vol. 48, pp. 3-4, 231-247.

Uhle, Max, 1889–90. Kultur und Industrie südamerikanischer Völker. A. Ascher, Berlin.

Wilson, Michael R. 1972. A Highland Maya People and Their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography, and Economy of the K’ekchi’. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Geography, University of Oregon.

Wisdom, Charles. 1940. The Chorti Maya of Guatemala. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

9 thoughts on “Diadems in the Rough

  1. David Stuart October 6, 2012 / 11:19 PM

    There’s a good chance that verb on Stela 1 is spelled ka-cha-ja instead of ka-cha-ji — so slightly mis-drawn in the illustration (this was one of Ian’s first inkings, I think).

  2. mayoid October 7, 2012 / 1:06 AM

    Sounds reasonable and right!

  3. karenbassie October 7, 2012 / 5:37 PM

    The narrative structure and the relationship between the text and image on Aguateca Stela 1 may add to your interpretation. The text is broken into two sections on the left and right sides of the image of K’awill Chan K’inich performing a hand-scattering. As usual, the narrative begins with the left text and relates the hand-scattering of Ruler 3 and then relates his death. From the death, the story moves to the say h’un event of K’awill Chan K’inich that occurred four days later, then moves to his accession 22 days after that and finally ends with his hand-scattering on the Period Ending three days after his accession. The hand-scattering Period Ending event begins at the bottom of the left section and continues at the top of right section. In order to read the Period Ending text, the viewer is drawn across the body of K’awill Chan K’inich performing a hand-scattering so it is obviously the pictured event. What is also interesting about the placement of the text and image is that the text referring to the say h’un event is reduced to one column of glyphs and K’awiil Chan K’inich’s forearm and hand intrudes into the space of the text. In fact, his upper arm overlaps the calendar date of the say h’un event. To me this suggests that the say h’un event is related more to the climax of the story (the Period Ending event) than it is to the accession. The duty of the king to perform Period Ending rituals in honor of the deities is a major theme on Classic Period public monuments. In these scenes, the king takes on the guise of various deities. As you have noted in previous publications, the Aguateca Period Ending event states that K’awill Chan K’inich performed his hand-scattering in the presence of the Aguateca-Dos Pilas patron deity GI-Kawiil. We know from the texts of Palenque and other sites that Classic Period deities had specific headdresses. One wonders if the say h’un was the headdress of GI-Kawill.

  4. Ivan Savchenko October 7, 2012 / 9:40 PM

    We can see the same event (as Shele & Grube proposed in 1994 – in partly broken blocks M2-N2 (Shele & Grube 1994)) and the same narrative structure on Naranjo Stela 32. Right now I’m preparing an article about this monument: the Maler’s photo – and now it hasn’t any doubts – shows us that the text starts from the birth of Waxaklaju’n-‘Ubaah-K’awiil likely in 800 A.D., than it comes to the unknown couple date-event which should be the date of ‘Itzamnaaj-K’awiil death and then in 15 months and 17 days goes ‘kahchaj ‘u-say huu’n’ event. I suppose this ‘pre-enthronement’ ritual may mean some kind of selection, the heir became somebody like… I don’t know how to explain rightly… ‘fiance’ of throne, the person, already officially, who should be a dead king successor, like it often took place in ancient societies (for example in Mesopotamia before the ritual of enthronement there was the ritual of formal approval of formal ‘candidate’ – a future king – by gods).

    Shele L., Grube N., 1994. Tlaloc – Venus Warfare, The Peten Wars – In Notebook for the XVIII Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop. Austin.

  5. mayoid October 8, 2012 / 12:44 AM

    Yes, of course, I should have mentioned the parallel with NAR St. 32 — you might want to consult Houston and Mathews 1985:fig. 15, “Pre-accession and accession ceremonies at Naranjo and Aguateca.” Joel Skidmore/Mesoweb has a .pdf of this small monograph on the Dos Pilas sequence from PARI.

  6. Kermit Frazier October 10, 2012 / 10:16 PM

    The word the Maya Kiche of Momostenango use for the resinous ash deposits from burning incense, etc, in the Altars is ‘kach’. I realise this is probably completely irrelevant due to linguistic differences, but “for what its worth”.

  7. Wes Christensen October 24, 2012 / 12:16 AM

    Ever since I first saw the complicated headgear of the lords in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals, I wondered what they were made out of — especially the highly detailed ones that had all the complex tendrils and grotesque mask forms, all rendered in white, with what looked like patterned encised relief designs, (like the figures being dressed in the room’s upper register, and dancing in the lower register).

    Since these fancy hats were quite tall and needed to be strong enough to attach the long feathered plumes and stuffed boa tails, and all the other add ons that doubtless were part of the costume, it seemed reasonable to me that the main headgear might well be made out of some native version of paper mache.

    We tend to think of this material as stuff for a child’s arts and crafts project, but we shouldn’t forget that highly refined paper mache was a medium used in European furniture manufacture and could (like stucco) be moulded into fantastic decorative forms during the Baroque and Rococo era.

    It’s values would include ease of working, a suitable sticky pulp when wet, into which feathers, for example, could be stuck — and when dry, is quite a good glue. Most of all, the substance is light and strong and could easily be attached to armatures of basketry or stiff cloth. It seems to me that such headgear would be just the thing for dance costumes which probably had alot of OTHER heavy items to deal with, jade jewelry, shells, animal pelts, etc. that would weigh the dancer down.

    While I never saw this suggestion coming from anyone who might know (like Mary Ellen Miller) the paucity of actual physical remains suggests a perishable substance, though the thin ceramic mask that Demarest recently found suggests another possibility to be sure.

    Now with the suggestion of the use of verbal meaning of glyphs for paper, perhaps Proskouriakoff’s intuition was right all alone when she suggested that the headdresses were writing in another more concrete form.

  8. Jesse Simms September 4, 2015 / 3:53 PM

    Although admittedly a stretch, I wonder if this “say hu’n” is referred to on the Bonampak Murals. While at the Yale Museum recently I got some great up-close photos of Heather Hurst’s replication of the murals. The one that caught my eye was the small dedicatory text along the waistband of a participant. He is located in room 3 to the right of the door. His waist band carries part of a formulaic text familiar from Mayan vases. It reads thus: “t’ab-yi u-tz’i-bi-li sa-“. Sadly the text ends in right after the “sa” glyph (although the glyph could also be “ka”). The thought was that this was describing the “written on” object – in this case the waistband: thus “say” would be the material the waistband was made out of. There is really no way to know for sure and I’m not sure there is a case of the term waistband (let alone an adjective describing it) anywhere in the corpus. Anyway – just a thought.

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